The New York Times reports today, “A band of Senate Democrats signaled on Monday that it would press forward when Congress convenes this week with a proposal to curtail filibusters and other methods of slowing the chamber’s work . . . . Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, said that he intended to call for new limits on filibusters that would require senators to be on the floor if they seek to derail legislation. He and other Democrats, frustrated at Republicans’ ability to tie up the Senate, want to make it harder to erect other procedural obstacles as well.”
However, according to Politico, Democrats are divided on a tactic that would harm the institution of the Senate and could severely backfire on them. “Democrats who have been complaining for two years about Republican obstruction are struggling to unite behind a single filibuster reform plan – and several are expressing reservations that they could set a dangerous precedent if Republicans return to the Senate majority after the 2012 elections. Republican leaders — who have been largely quiet in the debate so far — are planning to step up their attacks and portray any proposed changes in Senate rules as a power grab by Democrats. ‘I think people need to understand that no one is naïve here, and that we have a very evenly divided Senate now and I don’t think any of us think that it’s beyond the possible that the Democrats can be in the minority in a couple of years,’ Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) told POLITICO Monday. . . . The problem for Democrats is that there have been several different approaches proposed, and the party hasn’t settled on one unified filibuster reform plan.”
Certainly, Democrats have recognized in the past that the filibuster protects the rights of the minority in the Senate. As far back as 1995, many Senate Democrats voted against changing cloture rules. At the time, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) said, “The full-scale elimination of one of the most sacred rules of the Senate–the filibuster–will not result in a more efficient Senate. In fact, it has the potential to result in the tyranny of the majority.” Reid added, “I view the use of the filibuster as a shield, rather than a sword. invoked to protect rights, not to suppress them.” A decade later, then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) said, “What [the American people] do not expect is for one party, be it Republican or Democrat, to change the rules in the middle of the game so they can make all the decisions while the other party is told to sit down and keep quiet.” Appearing on MSNBC just a year ago, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) was more direct: “I totally oppose the idea of changing filibuster rules. . . .That’s foolish, in my view.”
In recent decades, Republicans have used the filibuster to block or delay some of the most egregious legislation proposed by both parties in Congress, as The Atlantic points out in a profile of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell today.
The NYT notes, “Republicans, who forced more than 90 votes to cut off filibusters in the last two years, said they had little choice since Democrats on many occasions refused them any opportunity to propose changes to legislation. [Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar] Alexander and others have warned Democrats to brace for a backlash should they act unilaterally. In a speech prepared for a Tuesday appearance at the Heritage Foundation, Mr. Alexander reiterated his position that Democrats would be making a mistake. ‘Voters who turned out in November are going to be pretty disappointed when they learn the first thing Democrats want to do is cut off the right of the people they elected to make their voices heard on the floor of the U.S. Senate,’ he said in his planned remarks.”
Senate News Briefing 1.04.11